UPPER MARLBORO – After hearing complaints from local businesses, the Prince George’s County Council’s Transportation, Housing and Environment committee voted unanimously to give a favorable report on a county that would ban polystyrene, plastic foam products for food service businesses.
The committee removed language from the bill requiring businesses to use compostable, biodegradable or recyclable disposable products, due to complaints from businesses that it would be too difficult to meet the requirements of the bill.
Councilwoman and Committee Chairperson Mary Lehman, who sponsored the bill, said she agreed to make the changes in order to give businesses a chance to adjust to the bill’s requirements and find replacement products.
The bill, as written, bans the sale of expanded polystyrene food service products by food service businesses as well as the use of polystyrene packaging. Lehman said the county will provide education to food service businesses on regulations from the bill and help them identify environmentally acceptable food service products and packaging materials.
“I think it’s fair to say that people are going to think twice about investing in this county if our neighborhoods and our roadways are infested with litter,” Lehman said. “It’s a burden, it’s an eye sore, it’s an environmental problem and it’s a health problem.”
Lehman said she would still like to have a requirement for business owners to use different products, but removing that language from the current bill and drafting another one gives restaurant and business owners a chance to find an affordable product fitting the requirements of recyclable and compostable.
“They want to do the right thing. I think we heard legitimate concerns about two years out with the requirement that all materials used by food service businesses, including utensils, would have to be compostable or recyclable,” Lehman said about restaurant and business owners. “That’s a goal we all share and want to move toward, but we concluded that probably needs to be a separate piece of legislation.”
Lehman’s bill comes not long after Montgomery County and the District of Columbia passed bans of their own on polystyrene products.
Martha Ainsworth, chair of the Sierra Club of Prince George’s County, said according to an incomplete survey the Sierra Club has been performing, about half of the county’s establishments have already stopped using polystyrene products.
Ainsworth said the Sierra Club surveyed 200 county-based establishments with an interest in learning which products they used.
“More than half of the restaurants are part of a chain, and half of the chain restaurants are not using any foam containers. They have already moved to substitutes,” Ainsworth said. “If you look specifically at fast food chains, about two-thirds are not using expanded polystyrene foam containers.”
The survey is 85 percent complete, Ainsworth said, but the results are not expected to change very much. She said the adjustment food service businesses will have to make should not be a very difficult one as most services are already using alternative materials.
Lehman said she still feels strongly about the ban and would like to implement the ban in July 2016. It needs to take effect “sooner rather than later,” she said.
County Executive Rushern Baker III wants the bill to go into effect in 2017, said Brad Frome, Baker’s deputy chief of staff. The county does not typically inspect and enforce, Frome said, so there will be an adjustment period.
By waiting, Frome said, Prince George’s will be able to piggy-back off the advertising from Montgomery and D.C., whose bans go into effect in January 2016. In addition, Frome said the county will have more time to learn from the lessons of Montgomery’s and D.C.’s experiences.
“We feel that having a year makes our job easier,” Frome said.
The Baker administration also has concerns about compliance costs, Frome said, because the Department of the Environment will need to add enforcement staff.
The county estimates the new enforcement entity to cost $500,000 in its first year, Frome said, $400,000 in the second year and thereafter.
“I think it’s safe to assume that over time, as people become more acquainted with the law, there will be less to enforce,” Frome said. “We are going to have to put bodies on the payroll, and we’re going to keep them on the payroll thereafter so the cost is going to stay with us.”
Councilwoman Karen Toles said while it may take time for people to get used to the ban, they will eventually adjust.
“People are beginning to move forward on the brown bag laws pushed forward by Ms. Lehman and appreciate that,” Toles said. “I think they will do the same with this.”